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America's Beloved River Up for Grabs

Insights + Opinion

Spanning nearly half a century of American history, the Wild and Scenic Rivers system has been backed by eight presidents and by congresses in virtually every session. The preamble of this bi-partisan legislation states that "certain selected rivers ... shall be preserved in free-flowing condition." Stressing the need for balance, this product of statesmanship recognized "that the established national policy of dam and other construction ... needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition."

Through the past two decades the Merced and all the National Wild and Scenic Rivers have survived unscathed through a political era when even the Clean Water Act was besieged. Today, those who challenge this river's protection would become the first to undermine the national promise that a select few of our very finest rivers will always flow free. Photo credit: Tim Palmer

For decades California has been a leader in the illustrious journey that followed this policy directive. The Middle Fork Feather was among the first National Wild and Scenic Rivers, safeguarded while Ronald Reagan was governor. Gov. Jerry Brown engaged the Carter administration to secure protection of multiple North Coast rivers slated for damming. President George W. Bush designated two California rivers in 2006. President Obama added 10 more.

Highlighting this remarkable network as the most iconic river of the Golden State, the Merced tumbles out of Yosemite Valley and into the Sierra foothills—its protection the result of a popular groundswell and decisive congressional agreements in both 1987 and 1992.

Escaping the rancor that typifies political debates today, this system of protected waterways has never faced a serious effort to undermine its meaning or effectiveness. Until now.

At the behest of the Merced Irrigation District, a bill to delete the lower end of the Merced passed the House last spring. It would break a long tradition of good faith built around a program as significant as our National Parks. It would be like slicing off the end of Yosemite for a shopping mall because a developer suddenly says he's interested.

The Middle Fork Feather was among the first National Wild and Scenic Rivers, safeguarded while Ronald Reagan was governor. Gov. Jerry Brown engaged the Carter administration to secure protection of multiple North Coast rivers slated for damming. Photo credit: Tim Palmer

An extreme irony here is that the encroachment not far below Yosemite would gain a mere 12,000 acre-feet of water for an irrigation agency that already delivers 500,000 (even more is diverted by others). Improved efficiency can supply multiples of what a sacrificed Merced would yield. Here, the balance championed in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has been struck: four dams already block the flow. Of the Merced's 145 miles, only 60 are protected. Now we find that even they are imperiled.

While the threatened mileage is not great, the compromises have been made, and if a river as beloved as the Merced is up for grabs, what's next? America's magnificent system of protected rivers—which accounts for less than one-quarter of one percent of the rivers and streams of the nation—is today on the chopping-block for a pittance of water.

Through the past two decades the Merced and all the National Wild and Scenic Rivers have survived unscathed through a political era when even the Clean Water Act was besieged. Today, those who challenge this river's protection would become the first to undermine the national promise that a select few of our very finest rivers will always flow free. It's ironic that this regression would be suffered by the river of Yosemite.

Tim Palmer is the author of Field Guide to California Rivers, Rivers of California, Endangered Rivers and the Conservation Movement, and other books.

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